Kenn Nakata Steffensen
I am a member of the Broadcast, Entertainment, Communication and Theatre Union, BECTU. Like most people in this country BECTU understandably finds the BNP’s views abhorrent. Its policy of denying the party airtime is more difficult to understand, as it seems to contradict the union’s values as a democratic organisation committed to freedom of expression. Freedom of expression should be particularly important for a union of media workers, and it ought therefore to think about the meaning of the concept and its translation into policy.
Regardless of the fact that Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time looks like an unmitigated PR disaster for the BNP, was BECTU right in principle to argue for suppression of their views? Does calling for censorship not open up an intractable debate about who else should be censored and the criteria to be applied when making such a decision? And does it not represent a capitulation to the authoritarian values that BECTU sought to oppose? Should we fight fire with fire and thereby sacrifice a central principle? Do the ends justify the means? After some doubts I have come to believe that BECTU’s policy of “no platform for the BNP” is misguided.
In September the BBC decided to invite the BNP leader Nick Griffin to participate in its current affairs programme Question Time. This has been a matter of general political controversy, exposing some of the core contradictions of liberal democratic political theory and practice and posing a dilemma for all who believe in democracy, equality and freedom of expression. This is exemplified in the manner in which the issue has split the Labour Party with Jack Straw agreeing to appear on the programme and his cabinet colleague Peter Hain urging the BBC not to allow Mr. Griffin to appear. The Labour Party has previously had a policy of not sharing media platforms with the BNP. The party’s decision to be represented by the Justice Secretary therefore marks a significant change. The Prime Minister argued for the policy reversal by saying that, “If, on Question Time, they are asked about their racist and bigoted views that are damaging to good community relations, it will be a good opportunity to expose what they are about.”
In response to the BBC’s decision BECTU issued a press release on 28th September announcing the union’s support for members who chose on conscientious grounds “not to work on the broadcast because of the involvement of the BNP.” The day before the broadcast, BECTU announced that general secretary Gerry Morrisey would “speak at the Unite Against Fascism rally outside BBC Television Centre, London, on 22 October.” BECTU argued that “the party’s performance earlier this year in the European elections, does not justify inclusion in the programme, contrary to the BBC’s official view.” The day after the broadcast, BECTU issued another statement saying that “The BNP leader’s weak justifications for his extremist, far-Right beliefs will galvanise the political opposition to him and, most importantly, should encourage those voters who delivered a platform for the party in the European Parliament to think again about the further damage which the BNP would do to UK society.” The union also reiterated its belief that Nick Griffin should not have appeared on Question Time. Gerry Morrissey, general secretary, said, “We stand by our view, which is union policy, in arguing that the BBC should not have granted a platform to the BNP. Time will tell whether the BNP secures any electoral advantage from the broadcast.”
The BBC has justified its decision to include the BNP with reference to the organisation’s obligation “to treat all political parties registered with the Electoral Commission and operating within the law with due impartiality,” and with reference to the fact that the BNP has “demonstrated evidence of electoral support at a national level”. This electoral support should “be reflected in the amount of coverage the party received.” Although the legality of the BNP’s constitution is disputed, the reasoning of the BBC seems logically coherent and in line with its obligations. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the many well-intentioned people, including BECTU’s secretary general, who are, in effect, calling for censorship.
The BNP increased their share of votes in the European Parliament elections on 4th June by 1.3% on their 2004 results, thus winning two seats and representation at a national level for the first time. They won 6% of the vote nationally (943,598 votes) and “close to 10% in some regions”. This is a momentous event in British political history and a disturbing development for all egalitarians. What is heartening, on the other hand, is the general response by the public and the mainstream parties. Unlike in some other European countries, the political ideas of the BNP remain marginal and are consistently opposed by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. It does not enjoy as widespread support as the Dutch Party for Freedom (14.8%) or the Danish People’s Party (15.3%). And due to the higher thresholds for representation in the British first-past-the-post electoral system, this does not translate into parliamentary representation as directly as in proportional systems. In spite of its relative electoral success, the BNP is still considered beyond the pale by other parties, and unlike in Denmark its core ideas have not been adopted by the social democratic, liberal and conservative mainstream. Nick Griffin’s performance on Question Time clearly showed that his parasitical attempts to co-opt liberal democratic discourse and present a “New BNP” failed. The party cannot run from its fascist roots and is unlikely to have mass appeal or to change the orientations of the mainstream parties. However unpleasant a phenomenon it is, it does not represent as great a threat to pluralism as parties with similar values elsewhere in Europe.
It is right for BECTU to be concerned about the rise of the BNP and to act against it. There can be no doubt about that. But, as Lenin asked in another historical context and from a different perspective and with different objectives than mine, “what is to be done?” This is really one of the “burning questions of our movement.” To answer the tactical question of how to respond appropriately requires some theoretical reflection on a number of dilemmas and possibly irresolvable contradictions of modern politics. These tend to present themselves as paired conceptual oppositions, such as the limits of democracy and authoritarianism, procedural versus substantive democracy, freedom of speech versus harm to society and individuals, universalism versus relativism, and reason versus emotion.
Democracy as a political system has its origins in ancient Athens. It has two semantic components – demos (people) and kratia (rule). It was a system by which the people governed the city state (polis). The people were conceived of as all Athenian citizens, which meant native, male Athenians over the age of 18. Women, descendants of immigrants and slaves were excluded from the citizenry. Citizenship conferred a right to participation in the assembly (ekklesia), which would constitute an executive council (boule) of 500 paid government officials elected for a one-year term. Between 503 to 322 BCE, “Athens lived under a radically democratic government” where “in a very real sense, the People governed themselves, debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains “
After the enlightenment and the French revolution, classical Athenian democracy developed into representative liberal democracy and became the ideal form of government towards which European states strived. Hardly any political movements since Hitler have defined themselves as opposed to democracy. Even Stalinists and Maoists have claimed to be democrats, as terms like “people’s democracy”, the oxymoronic “people’s democratic dictatorship” and names like German Democratic Republic or Democratic People’s Republic of Korea show. What we generally refer to as democracy today is representative liberal democracy. Although it means different things to many people, democracy is so hegemonic that even Nick Griffin appeals to liberal democratic principles.
Liberalism and democracy coexist uneasily, and at times they come into conflict with each other. Unlike classical democracy, which was founded on fundamental gender and class discrimination, liberalism secularised the Christian doctrine that all human beings were equal before God. The principle of fundamental equality made exclusion from political participation based on first class and later gender and ethnicity untenable and resulted in the gradual extension of citizenship rights to more of the population. Today, all adults regardless of class, income, gender and ethnicity have a right to in principle equal participation in the political process. In most contemporary liberal democracies, immigrants do not have the right to vote in national elections, but all citizens do, including BNP members, voters and sympathisers.
As the name implies, liberalism is also centrally concerned with liberty, which is usually understood as the right of individuals and groups to freely live as they choose as long as their choices do not harm others. A distinction is often made between positive and negative freedoms – freedom to and freedom from. One of the questions faced by anti-racists is whether the BNP’s right to democratic participation infringes on the right of others, e.g. ethnic minorities, to live in freedom. If so, how should it be addressed and what should be the balance between positive and negative freedom? The union’s position is that the BNP’s rights should be curtailed because their views are in principle different from those of other political opponents. What distinguishes the BNP from others is, according to Gerry Morrissey, that their “policies are reprehensible, anti-democratic and racist”. Most members will probably agree with this. Many may also agree that the union should therefore support efforts to prevent them from spreading their views in the media. However honourable the intentions, such a policy is problematic because it means relativising and compromising principles, which should be consistently upheld by BECTU. Freedom of expression and the right to political participation applies to all, even to those we fundamentally disagree with. Censorship is fundamentally illiberal and undemocratic, and a consistently democratic position would therefore defend it as an absolute value under all circumstances. By seeking to keep the BNP off the airwaves, BECTU has given in to the authoritarianism that it finds reprehensible about the BNP. It is a self-contradiction to do what we condemn others for trying to do. As Noam Chomsky once wrote,
“it is a truism, hardly deserving discussion, that the defense of the right of free expression is not restricted to ideas one approves of, and that it is precisely in the case of ideas found most offensive that these rights must be most vigorously defended. Advocacy of the right to express ideas that are generally approved is, quite obviously, a matter of no significance.”
Parties and movements like the BNP should be opposed on the principled grounds that their ideology is irrational and unethical. This opposition should take the form of reasoned debate true to the dialogic nature of democratic politics, not by making concessions to the very authoritarianism we oppose.
A further question raised by BECTU’s decision is which criteria to apply when deciding who should and who should not be censored. In this case, the argument for censorship is the anti-democratic and racist nature of the BNP. How should BECTU then respond to certain strands of Islamism or Zionism? Should it, as the Dutch and Danish far-right politician Geert Wilders and Søren Krarup, argue for the suppression of Islam itself on the grounds that it advocates authoritarianism and sexism? How should contemporary democratic liberal racists like Wilders be treated, and how should we assess historical democratic socialist racists like Sidney and Beatrice Webb? There are no easy answers to these questions, if any answers at all, once censorship and denial of political rights to one’s opponents has been embarked upon. A way of avoiding these questions in the first place is to consistently uphold the rights to freedom of expression and equal participation. This must, of course, be qualified by the harm principle, which John Stuart Mill defined as:
the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.
This means that the BNP have a right to be heard, but that the exercise of that right is conditional on refraining from inflicting harm on other members of society. It also means that nobody is entitled to limit that right unless it is for the purpose of preventing harm to others.
It seems logically inconsistent for anti-racist democrats to wish to deny a racist party the right to be heard and scrutinised in public. Weyman Bennett of Unite Against Fascism said, Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time “will lead to the growth of a fascist party” . According to the BNP, this has been an immediate effect of the programme. The party claims that the BBC has acted as its recruitment agent, thus apparently confirming Peter Hain’s fears. But 9,000 inquiries out of 8 million viewers amounts to very little. Ken Livingstone has argued that it will result “in a surge in violence against people from ethnic minorities”. This remains to be seen. It seems impossible to establish any clear causal relationship even in the (unlikely) case that there is a correlation. Furthermore, it is not necessarily the case that all publicity is good publicity. As Gordon Brown has said, exposing the BNP may “make people see what they are really like.” On the contrary, silencing parties like the BNP may have the opposite of the desired effect by lending legitimacy to their bizarre claims that London has been “ethnically cleansed” and that they speak on behalf of an indigenous ethnic majority threatened by genocide. As with other radical movements, there is a risk that suppression will backfire and strengthen the movement.
What would be truly worrying would be if Jack Straw, like the then Social Democrat (now Liberal) Danish Home Secretary Karen Jespersen, began to speak of the need to keep “illiterate Somalis” out of Britain, promise that the Labour Party would ensure that Britain would “never become a multicultural society” where “Islam was considered equal to Christianity”, or propose building special detention centres for asylum seekers on uninhabited islands. Fortunately, the British political elite and the general public are firmly committed to multiculturalism, and the political poison of the BNP has not infected the mainstream parties like in Denmark. Although the BNP is parasitical on liberal discourse for tactical reasons, e.g. in its appeals to freedom, human rights and democracy, it has clear historical roots in European fascism. The same cannot be said about the Danish and Dutch parties with which it shares many points of view. The historical roots of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the Danish People’s Party are not in pre-1945 fascism, although both parties have attracted members and supporters from more traditional fascist backgrounds. These examples illustrate that liberalism, ultra-nationalism and xenophobia are compatible with liberalism. In the same way, leading early 20th century socialists like Sidney and Beatrice Webb held views that are clearly racist.
Freedom of speech would have no meaning if it applied only to views found acceptable by most members of a polity at a given time in history. One’s commitment to freedom of speech is tested precisely when confronted with despicable views. Rather than following Hitler and Stalin in allowing the “free” expression of views BECTU agrees with, it should have followed Voltaire’s insistence on defending to the death Nick Griffin’s right to speak and be challenged. Freedom of speech has no meaning if it is relativised.